"I don't know what a college offense is, but I know what this offense is, and we are going to stick to it, period. [...] [The offense] started with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach and there's many branches, and [Kliff's] is unique, [...] if you asked him he wouldn't call it the 'Air Raid'."
~David Raih, Cardinals WR coach
"The 'Air Raid' is really a Mike Leach deal, you know, and he throws it 60 times a game and is wildly successful and I love him to death, but our deal is a little more balanced. We like to run the football, we like to have more play action, do some more things in the screen game."
~Kliff Kingsbury, Cardinals Head Coach
In only a few months the Cardinals will host the Lions in a Week 1 Home Opener, debuting Kliff's offense against Matt Patricia's improving defensive unit. The big question is, what will an offense that's part of the Mumme and Leach Air Raid tree, but not "Air Raid" even look like, and more importantly what's that even mean?
THE ROOTS OF THE TREE
Like Coach Raih spelled out, the offense started with Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, so to recap what we discussed in the last post (to catch up you can find it here) the original Air Raid was made up of the following elements synthesized together to form the Air Raid Offense:
- Limited number of spread formations
- Core passing plays based off the 1980s BYU passing concepts
- No Huddle Up Tempo
- Get the ball to 5 playmakers fairly evenly via the air or ground
- Give the Quarterback the ability to change the play or a route on the field at any time
- Repetitive practice schedule that stresses execution and removing thinking from the football field.
- Score as many points as possible, to help achieve this, run as many plays as possible.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
When those different elements are combined, they create an offense originally just called “The Offense”, before a local fan started bringing an old Air Raid Siren to Hal Mumme’s games and blasting it whenever they scored a touchdown. The Aerial attack mixed with the Air Raid Siren sounding, led to the Moniker we know today. Tony Franklin, the Kentucky coach who sold the Air Raid offense to high school programs across the country, for a modest fee, called his adaptation of it “the System” or the “Tony Franklin System”. Likewise when Sonny Dykes took it to Cal-Berkeley, where he ran it with Jared Goff he called his version the “Bear-Raid” in honor of Cal’s team name. A few years ago when Skyler Howard was the Quarterback at West Virginia and Dana Holgorsen went to a more power spread attack featuring Wendell Smallwood (now a Superbowl champion on the Philadelphia Eagles) Mike Leach jokingly kicked Dana from the “Air Raid club”
AIR RAID AS AN OFFENSE VS AIR RAID AS A OFFENSIVE PHILOSOPHY?
Part of the confusing statements from the Cardinals coaches comes from this element of: is Mike Leach’s offense an “Air Raid Offense” because he throws a lot or because he is running virtually the same offense as when him and Hal were coaching at backwater colleges and a redneck with an Air Raid Siren was blasting it near the endzone in the back of his truck?
Kingsbury’s offenses have at times leaned far closer to that Mike Leach level when his talent has been more in favor of a pass heavy approach, and less so when he had quality backs. It’s far more adaptable than Leach’s offenses, which seem to always lead the country in passing year in and year out. Let's take a look at the stats of teams he has been the offensive coordinator of or the head coach of:
For Comparison here are Mike Leach’s #s
So one thing is immediately obvious, Kliff on average runs the ball about 140 more times a season, and passes it 120 fewer times than Leach. But what also is apparent is how Kliff’s percentages fluctuate a lot more with his talent. 2012 when he had a great rushing quarterback in Johnny Manziel, Johnny carried it 200 times and they threw it far less. 2010 was similar with it being the injured year for Case Keenum and Kliff had to make due with an inferior quarterback he inherited. Years when he had an NFL caliber RB like 2015, you see the numbers bottom out, and years when he had a stud QB and no RB you see the pass numbers around 63%. Whereas Mike Leach’s numbers are very steady and predictable for the most part. The fact that they ended 4 seasons in a row within 12 total plays is kinda wild considering how many ups and downs are involved in a full season.
BRANCHES ON THE TREE
In 2008 when Kliff made the move from quarterback to assistant coach, he didn’t do so under his former coach Mike Leach at Texas Tech, an opportunity that would have put him there during the heyday of Michael Crabtree and Graham Harrell’s record setting seasons and a return to his alma mater (where he would later be head coach), he instead joined Dana Holgorsen at the University of Houston to work with Case Keenum, a quarterback they would develop and coach up as he’d go on to break all the major career passing records in NCAA history including:
- Most career pass completions: 1,546
- Most career passing yards: 19,217
- Most career passing touchdowns: 155
- Most career games with 300+ passing yards: 39
- Most games with 300+ passing yards in a single season: 14 (tied)
- Most seasons passing for 5,000+ yards: 3
- Most seasons passing for 4,000+ yards: 3 (tied)
- Most career total yards: 20,114
- Most career touchdowns responsible for: 178
But one thing coaching under Holgorsen taught Kingsbury was, the Air Raid offense didn't have to be just one thing. If you run a bit more, you can play action a bit more… and if you mix your quick game, screens, and running plays together in RPOs, you can teach your players less plays and achieve higher efficiencies while attacking more down the field than the old school air raid had. Dana was tinkering with the formula, and Kliff was his lab assistant.
At Houston, Dana started putting 2 backs next to Case Keenum, then having one motion out to the slot right at the snap. He’d also start doing other types of motions and adjustments, including having both backs in the backfield motion to the slot as part of a “formation shift”, and running empty formation 5 wide looks if the opponent loaded the box. Around this same time Sonny Dykes was at the University of Arizona where he was doing similar things but with a tight end named Rob Gronkowski. How can the defense defend the empty set and the set with the TE lined up as a lead blocker for the RB, and you can run both out of a no huddle up tempo offense that limits substitutions?
By 2012 Kliff and Dana were in different positions at bigger schools, Dana as Head Coach at West Virginia working with Geno Smith and Tavon Austin, a player where he was able to really toy around with jet sweeps and the “touch pass” jet sweep which Dana picked up from a high school Air Raid coach named Bob Stitt, this wrinkle had the QB in the Pistol or Gun and the WR runs his jet sweep pre-snap and passes in front of the QB, the ball is snapped to the qb who then immediately tosses it forward to the Jet Sweep player. If it fumbles, it is ruled an incomplete pass, however if its complete, the Jet Sweep player is still at full speed without slowing down for a hand off and better equipped to attack the defences edge. This mixed into a normal passing attack or with RPOs set up a nasty attack that led to a lot of points scored.
Kliff went on to work with freshman QB Johnny Manziel, making him the first freshman to ever win the Heisman. Along with big weapons like Mike Evans, Kliff’s offence seemingly attacked the whole field without mercy as people sat in awe of Johnny running around and extending plays. Something Arizona fans may get a chance to see for themselves this year in the desert with Kyler Murray.
THE LASTING INFLUENCE OF THE PATRIOT PLAYBOOK
One aspect that seems either taken from the Patriots offensive guru Charlie Weis or University of Houston archives is option routes. While not as core a part of the offense as the Run and Shoot (which is where Weis stole New England’s usage of option routes from), Kliff took a lot of the Tags the traditional Air Raid had the QB make, and merged them into Option Routes. You see Dig/Post Option Routes and Post/Post-Curl Option Routes, where the wide receiver gets to his breaking point then reads the guy covering him or the coverage and can either sit down in a hole in the zone or keep attacking vertically vs certain looks or man coverage. Kliff’s offense seem to keep these options a lot more basic than what June Jones asked of his wide outs at SMU or Hawai’i but these elements overall streamline elements of the offense to make it so the QB doesn’t have to overthink adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
OTHER DIFFERENCES FROM THE MIKE LEACH ‘AIR RAID’
Dana made a big change at Houston from the Leach Air Raid. Leach had used very wide splits and what is commonly referred to as “Vertical Set” pass blocking, where the linemen are in a 2 point stance about 3 yards apart from each other in order to spread out the defensive line and isolate the 4-5 typical pass rushers on a given down to 5 islands where the o linemen are each expected to win their 1 on 1 matchup. The problem with this is it really only gives Mike Leach the draw and a weak form of outside zone as running game options. Dana with his RPO game, went back to more of a standard split (pro style O line style) and based his run game out of inside zone, but with the versatility to run any run scheme he really wanted and Play action and RPOs off of that. Kliff has adapted this as well as have many other Air Raid coaches at the collegiate level as RPOs have become more prevalent.
One thing is clear as Kliff announces his offense will be:
- installed in 4 days and those same 4 days will be repeated throughout the offseason and training camp and into the season
- Will heavily feature Air Raid staple pass concepts being executed (with his option routes and tweaks of course):
- It will utilize Tempo and a no huddle approach “when it makes sense”
- It will be almost exclusively based out of the shotgun and include many empty sets, 11 personnel, 20, & 10 personnel groupings and even some pure 5 wide sets
- It will utilize RPOs and Play Action Passes as a core part of the base offense.
- It will be what Kliff has always ran, just adapted to the NFL in terms of needing a few TE on the roster (due to special teams considerations), and line blocking will be even more pro-style.
- It will spread the ball around to a whole bunch of playmakers all around the QB fairly evenly.
The only conclusion is that this “not-Air Raid” offense is the Air Raid offense, but it isn’t going to be Mike Leach’s Air Raid, and with David Johnson and Kyler Murray in the backfield, with Andy Isabella on Jet Sweeps and maybe even taking a handoff or two… it may not be a offense that exceeds 55% passing in 2019. But one thing is certain, they will likely run more plays than any team in the NFL, and if you ask the Air Raid believers, that gives them a good chance at putting up more points than the rest of the NFL as well.